Tory cheers cannot hide their fears as Rishi Sunak struggles to keep his party onside

The UK prime minister is under pressure from his restive backbenchers as the polls won’t budge

The running joke in Westminster is that the louder their own backbenchers cheer, the more trouble a prime minister may be in. On that metric, Rishi Sunak is in a lot of difficulty indeed.

The cheering from Tory backbenchers was deafening when Sunak slipped into the House of Commons just before noon on Wednesday for prime minister’s questions. Roughly five hours later, when he arrived to address a meeting of the powerful 1922 committee of backbenchers, the traditional table-banging welcome for the leader went on for close to a minute.

It all seemed oddly, performatively over the top. Yet Sunak is digging in for the fight as rumours continue to swirl that MPs from the restive right wing of his party want him out.

Backbench Tory nerves have frayed after a series of polls showed it falling further behind Labour, which has a lead of more than 20 points in most surveys. Even this month’s tax-cutting spring budget failed to make a dent in Labour’s advantage.


A new Redfield & Wilton poll on Wednesday, on voting intentions in the “red wall” working class seats of northern England, made backbenchers even more nervous in advance of the 1922 gathering. It put Labour 24 points in front of the Tories – plus ça change. But more worryingly for Sunak, it put the Nigel Farage-linked Reform UK party on 16 per cent.

If Reform’s growing influence hands Labour victory in marginal red wall seats, by splitting the Conservative vote, it could lead to disaster for the Tories at the election that is now widely expected to take place in the autumn.

Tory angst will only increase as the local elections on May 2nd loom closer into view. Another widely expected bad day under Sunak at the polls will ratchet up the pressure.

The embattled prime minister has two cards he intends to play. The first is to get Rwanda deportation flights off the ground by early summer, which would allow him to argue that he is getting on top of spiralling immigration and asylum claims from those arriving in the United Kingdom on small boats.

To do this, he must get a Bill to enable his Rwanda scheme on the statute books. It has already passed the House of Commons, but is stuck in the House of Lords. As Sunak’s backbenchers were theatrically cheering him into the 1922 committee meeting, members of the Lords were voting on a series of amendments to the Bill. The very first of the seven votes due on Wednesday was a defeat for the government.

That means the game of parliamentary “ping-pong”, where a Bill bounces between the Lords and Commons until they compromise, is guaranteed to go on until next week at the earliest, and maybe even until after the 20-day Easter recess. That means Sunak may struggle to get a Rwanda flight in the air before June, when the numbers attempting to cross the Channel in small boats can be expected to increase.

The other card Sunak intends to play is that he is a competent steward of the economy. He received a boost on Wednesday when fresh data showed inflation had fallen to 3.4 per cent, a steeper and faster decline than expected. That should boost growth later in the year.

Sunak claimed on Wednesday that 2024 will be the year the economy “bounces back”. Yet he is locked in an increasingly desperate political struggle to stay in office to witness it doing so.